The difference between listening and hearing

August 11, 2008

The most consistent web search that leads people to my blog is ‘the difference between listening and hearing’ and this piece originally posted in May 2007 is the most frequented on the blog. Looking through my stats for the past few months brings this to the top of the pile once again so for all of you who haven’t read it I’m republishing it once again.
I don’t believe in tricks when it comes to facilitating and consulting. At the end of the day it’s me and my client(s) in a room trying to figure something out together. Yes, I have a toolkit, but it’s pretty bare in terms of stuff I can take out and wave around…I don’t do “off the shelf” solutions and I’m rarely in a position to talk with any degree of freedom about previous work, primarily because so much of it comes to me as “confidential”. It’s a dilemma…
One of the things I do bring to the table is my ability to listen and more importantly, my ability to hear. Why differentiate I hear you ask? Well there’s a critical difference from a client’s perspective in being listened to and being heard and the ability to move between one and the other is what makes for good consulting and facilitation work.
I recently worked with a client who ranted and raved for a full 45 minutes “at” me about the “uselessness” of a manager in the system. He listed out the deficiencies in this manager, quantified the losses accruing as a result of his inadequacies and was blistering in his personal attack on his peer. He wanted me to “sort this person out” so the company could get back to doing what it needed to do. His preference was for me to take this manager out of the system and give him a “bloody good talking to”.
I didn’t do as he asked…and about a week later both the manager (above) and the vilified manager were back at work, getting along better than they ever had been and productivity was on the rise again.
Listening can be a tough station. For a full 45 minutes I listened to this manager’s anger. It was clear, unambiguous and in the service of some kind of action – any kind of action….
I heard a number of unspoken things while listening to his anger. I heard the anxiety in his voice, his escalating tension as he spoke, the lack of resolution as he “dumped” on me…his insistence that I “get rid” of the problem and also his isolation in dealing with it. If only I could make this problem go away then everything would be back to normal. I was being warned not to let him down. I heard his fear that the department would be vilified by head office if he couldn’t make this department perform its task and get the staff to work better together.
So I had a choice about what to respond to, knowing that how I would respond would dictate how we might progress together. If he didn’t feel “heard” then I was going to be as vilified as the manager I was expected to “fix”.
In this instance I took a risk and responded out of an empathy with his fear and anxiety. The look on his face was one of – “how did you know that?” but he couldn’t deny that I had heard him. He felt met, seen, listened to and heard – out of that meeting we managed to do some productive work together looking at his isolation in the system and also the expectation being piled on the new manager – most of which this new manager wasn’t aware of and couldn’t possibly respond to. Our work developed into a coaching relationship which was significant for this manager as it was the first time he had availed of any kind of professional support. I also coached the new manager helping to negotiate deliverables and ongoing professional support for him in the system. Each manager had felt unheard and was feeling pressure to respond to “unreasonable” demands from a “senior” in the organisation. Attending to what I was “hearing” allowed us to use the emotional content of the meeting to look at what was going on in that wider context. Once we’d established a relationship of trust it was possible for the situation to be resolved in a way that allowed each to hold on to their truth and their integrity. The tension in the relationship diminished, a better working environment was created and targets were met. The fact that I had heard as well as listened was a key factor in building a working alliance.
There’s a delicate dance between listening, hearing and the point at which you make an intervention to feed back what you think will make a difference. I see this as an intricate balance and this diagram goes some way to outlining the process from my perspective where the outside circle represents what I listened to and the inside what I heard.

Note: some details have been changed to protect the identity of the client and this piece has been published with the client’s permission.

4 People reacted on this

  1. Insightful writing, thank you. My version of this is ‘listening to what is being said, as well as hearing what isn’t’. It is the difference between addressing presenting issues or looking for the underlying patterns or causes in play.

  2. Annette,
    Are you familiar with the book Hidden Wholeness by Parker J Palmer?
    A lot of material in there about the quality and discipline of listening that goes on in Quaker clearness committees, making space for the person to listen to his/her own inner teacher. Sounds a bit like what you were doing. And, I’d think, part of what every good consultant — and good friend — must learn to do.

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